//Peek behind bars for rights panel

Peek behind bars for rights panel

Peek behind bars for rights panel blueprint for sweeping changes

New Delhi, Feb. 13: Jails as well as asylums for women or children, whose walls often hide inhuman conditions inside, could soon be opened to unannounced checks by the country’s highest rights body.

The Centre plans to empower the National Human Rights Commission to make “surprise visits” to jails, reform homes and similar institutions under the control of state governments.

The law now allows the commission to make such visits only after the state governments concerned are informed. This has led to complaints that local officials often stage-manage conditions in prisons and coach inmates on how to respond to questions from visiting teams.

The Protection of Human Rights (Amendment) Bill 2005, now being scrutinised by the parliamentary committee on home affairs, also seeks quick help for rights victims and prompt action against the violators. The bill was moved in the Rajya Sabha last year and was referred to the panel. Once the committee submits its recommendations, the House will take up the amendment.

If the bill is passed, the victims will be eligible for “interim relief” while the commission will be able to recommend proceedings against the accused officials before the inquiry has been completed.

The government is seeking to relax the rule that only a retired Chief Justice of India can head the commission. It wants any judge who has been with the apex court for three years to be eligible.Likewise, besides a retired high court chief justice, high court judges with a standing of five years will be eligible for the post of a state human rights commission’s chief. The government has explained that state governments have been struggling to find retired high court chief justices familiar with the local language. Several of the amendments look to lighten workload and cut costs. State commissions will now have three members instead of five. On the other hand, the national commission will be allowed to transfer complaints to state commissions. Also, the commission chairman can delegate some of his powers to the secretary-general. Most of the changes are recommendations by an advisory committee, set up under former Chief Justice of India A.M. Ahmadi, to assess the need for amendments to the 1993 Act.